From the darkness of a sparse stage come the cries of a tortured soul. A high barn window opens and we see the feral face of Tituba, contorted and wailing. The bodies of the young women of Salem writhe below in the moonlight in an almost tribal dance only to be discovered by The Reverend Parris, thus igniting tales of Witchcraft and Devil worship throughout the town.
Arthur Miller’s play, written in 1953 was, like much of his work, a reflection of those turbulent times. A witch hunt of a different kind was under way in America by way of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign. Miller himself was under threat of being arrested by The House of Un-American Activities and his portrayal of real life events in 17th Century Salem showed how the justice system was as archaic then as in his own time. This was also a time of great racial inequality in America at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement.
Director Geraldine Alexander has presented this tour de force production at a time when history appears to be eerily repeating itself. She has made a decision to keep Miller’s story in its original place in time, but that does not detract from the parallels drawn with Trump’s America and the Me Too Movement. Alexander says of her characters “The Women in The Crucible are repressed and they are told and believe that God is the first, then men, and women are on the lowest tier… I want to say that there is a danger in treating women like that – there are consequences”.
No stranger to TV and theatre acting herself, Alexander’s cast do an excellent job at bringing these themes into the 21st Century. Even the outfits of the town’s young girls feel contemporary in their similarity to those of the women in the successful current TV adaption of The Handmaid’s Tale. Along with a simple yet mesmerising set, the production is at once difficult to tear your eyes away from.
Standout performances come from Elizabeth and John Proctor (Mary Doherty and Matthew Flynn), the young, wet behind the ears Reverend Hale played by Freddy Elletson (Fresh from Wonder Woman) and Martin Turner as Deputy Governor Danforth whose otherworldly presence dominates the whole of Act Two. Natasha Bain’s tortured Tituba brings a Supernatural element that remains in the house from the opening seconds of the play.
The decision to use Yorkshire accents despite the New England setting is curious, but it is likely that settlers from England at that time would still have retained this. It is this attention to detail that gives an edge to the performances. When Laurence Olivier appeared in the play, he too used a regional English accent, much to the satisfaction of Miller.
The first act moves at a fast pace with accusations of witchcraft, sporadic fits of apparent possession and frantic gossiping amongst the ensemble cast. The prostrate body of Betty Parris takes centre stage, exhausted on the bed following her nocturnal shenanigans as the rest of the characters pass judgement. It is when the action moves to the house of the farmer, John Proctor, when the story becomes more intriguing as his “good” wife Elizabeth becomes a victim of the witch hunters and John has to reconsider his own shameful actions and the fate of their marriage.
Act Two slows down considerably as the aftermath unfolds during the court hearing and due to no fault of the director, the dialogue becomes a little laboured and repetitive. Somehow this is essential as it reflects succinctly the laborious and repetitive nature of the protestations of women through time that have at last led to the Post-Weinstein revelation of perhaps finally being heard. Alexander hasn’t missed this detail; “I have a lot to say about the power of women’s voices – and now as we’re beginning to get a proper say, I don’t want to get squashed”.
Alexander brings Miller’s masterpiece screaming into the here and now and succeeds in pulling out relevant messages and reminding us of the ever present enemy at the door. The girls of Salem may appear to be wailing home-wrecking banshees, but just as today, they are victims of greater powers, shouting to be heard. The Crucible remains an essential allegory of the darkest of times.